Andy Stanley became one of nation's biggest pastors after being labeled a traitor
Stanley reveals how showdown with mentor shaped ministry
Stanley: "It was horrible. But ... I had perfect peace."
Stanley's hero: "Andy, you have joined my enemies"
Andy Stanley walked into his pastor’s office, filled with dread.
The minister sat in a massive chair behind an enormous desk. He spread his arms across the desk as if he were bracing for battle. His secretary scurried out of the office when she saw Andy coming.
The pastor had baptized Andy when he was 6, and groomed him to be his successor. But a private trauma had gone public. And Andy felt compelled to speak.
The minister stared in silence as Andy gave him the news. The “unspoken dream” both men shared was over.
After Andy finished, the pastor looked at him as tears welled up.
“Andy,” he said, “you have joined my enemies, and I’m your father.”
‘I understand drive-by shootings’
He won’t wear a suit or a tie in the pulpit. There’s no special parking space reserved for him at his church. Everyone calls him “Andy.”
As a teenager, Andy decided he was going to be a rock star after seeing Elton John perform live. Today he has found fame, and infamy, on another stage.
Andy Stanley is the founder of North Point Ministries, one of the largest Christian organizations in the nation. A lanky man with close-cropped hair and an “aw-shucks” demeanor, he is alone as he steps out of his office to greet a visitor to his ministry’s sprawling office complex in suburban Atlanta.
At least 33,000 people attend one of Andy’s seven churches each Sunday. Fans watch him on television or flock to his leadership seminars; pastors study his DVDs for preaching tips; his ministries’ website gets at least a million downloads per month.
“I tell my staff everything has a season,” he says, leaning back in an office chair while wearing a flannel shirt, faded jeans and tan hiking boots. “One day we’re not going to be the coolest church. Nothing is forever. As soon as somebody thinks forever, that’s when they close their hand,” he says, slowly clenching his fist. “Now they have to control, maintain and protect it. … Things get weird.”
At 54, Andy knows something about weirdness. He was swept up in a struggle against another famous televangelist – his father, the Rev. Charles Stanley, a Southern Baptist megachurch pastor and founder of In Touch Ministries, a global evangelistic organization. The experience enraged Andy so much it scared him:
“I understand drive-by shootings,” he told his wife one day. “I was so angry at my dad. I was trying to do the right thing.”
The experience wounded his father as well.
“I felt like this was a huge battle, and if Andy had been in a huge battle … you’d have to crawl over me to get to him,” Charles Stanley, now 80, says.” I would have stood by him, no matter what. I didn’t feel like he did that.”
There’s no father-son preaching duo quite like the Stanleys. Imagine if Steve Jobs had a son, who created a company that rivaled Apple in size and innovation – and they barely spoke to one another.
That was the Stanleys. Neither man has ever fully explained the events that tore them apart 19 years ago – until now.
‘I was the heir apparent’
Charles Stanley remembers the first time he heard his son preach.
“I was tickled pink,” he says. “I instantly knew that God could use him.”
Charles knows something about preaching. Millions of people around the globe grew up with the sound of his sermons ringing in their ears.
He has preached from the pulpit of First Baptist Church Atlanta for 40 years. Tall and lean, he delivers homespun sermons in a rich baritone while holding his black leather Bible aloft for emphasis. He’s written at least 40 books.
In Touch Ministries sits like a Greek temple on the crest of a hill overlooking the Atlanta skyline. A large American flag stands near its entrance, beside a row of gushing fountains. A mammoth portrait of a smiling Charles Stanley hangs just inside and bears the inscription: “Obey God and leave all the consequences to Him.”
It’s an impressive sight, but it’s not the type of life Andy envisioned for himself growing up. His father never raised him to be a pastor.
“My dad was great. He didn’t pressure me. I never heard that talk, ‘You’re the pastor’s son and you need to be an example.’ “
What Andy remembers most about growing up with his father is not his fame, but his resolve. He tells this story in “Deep and Wide,” his new book about his father and the evolution of his own ministry:
When he was in the eighth grade, his father waged a bruising battle to become senior pastor of First Baptist. The battle inflamed tensions so much that his family received nasty, anonymous letters and deacons warned his father that he would never pastor again.
One night, during a tense church meeting, a man cursed aloud and slugged Charles in the jaw. Andy says his father didn’t flinch, nor did he retaliate. He kept fighting and eventually became senior pastor of First Baptist.
“I saw my dad turn the other cheek,” Andy later wrote about that night, “but he never turned tail and ran.”
His dad was his first hero.
But another church incident taught him a different lesson.
Andy was raised as a Southern Baptist, a conservative denomination that teaches the Bible is infallible and that women shouldn’t preach. His father was twice elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention.
“We were Southern Baptists and everyone else was wrong,” Andy says. “I grew up believing that we were the true Christians.”
One Sunday, a gay pride group planned to march past his father’s church. Leaders of the congregation, warned in advance, dismissed church early to avoid contact with the group. But organizers of the march changed the schedule. Andy watched as First Baptist members filed out of the church and gawked at gay and lesbian marchers streaming by. Then he noticed a Methodist church across the street whose members held out cups of water for marchers and signs that said, “Everybody welcome! Come worship with us!”
“We’re the church that sings ‘Just as I Am’ after the sermon, and here we are shunning this group of people because of a lifestyle we disagreed with,” he says now.
The pull of the pulpit, though, was stronger than any reservations he had about church. Andy enrolled in college to become a journalist. But he abandoned those plans after a youth minister’s position opened up at his father’s church.
Those who heard Andy’s first sermons say his talent was evident from the start. He had a knack for saying things that stuck in a listener’s mind. He was funny, insightful, took on hard questions, and he nudged people to look at familiar biblical passages in a new way.
Charles started televising his son’s sermons on In Touch’s broadcasts, and picked him to preach in his place when he was traveling. And when First Baptist opened its first satellite church on Easter Sunday 1992, he appointed Andy as its pastor.
Within three weeks, Andy’s congregation was turning people away at the door because they had no more room.
Within two months, Andy’s satellite church swelled to 2,000 members.
Andy says his father was delighted. He started joking that the Stanleys would become a preaching dynasty. And both men began to share an “unspoken dream”: that Andy would take the helm after his father’s retirement. In Touch was no longer just a ministry; it was Andy’s inheritance.
“I was the heir apparent,” Andy says. “I know that he desired it.”
Something, however, would drive father and son apart.
‘I got that straight from the Lord’
Andy didn’t know his parents’ marriage was in trouble until he was in the 10th grade. Before then, he never saw his father or his mother argue or even disagree. Charles and Anna Stanley seemed to have the perfect relationship.
A year after his father appointed him to pastor a satellite church, he knew his parents’ marriage was disintegrating. They had been to every counselor and doctor imaginable. Eventually, his mother moved out and stopped attending church with his father.
“People got used to it, and they quit asking about it,” he says. “It happened so gradually.”
Anna Stanley had made her own mark on the church – and on her son.
“No matter what I did, I could come home and tell her,” he says. “She never freaked out, never overreacted. She was always a very safe place.”
The Rev. Louie Giglio, one of Andy’s best friends growing up, still remembers some of the lessons Andy’s mother taught at summer Bible camp.
“All of Andy’s wisdom doesn’t come from his dad,” says Giglio, now senior pastor of Passion City Church in Atlanta and a founder of the Passion Movement, a popular outreach effort for young evangelicals. “She was incredibly insightful.”
The quiet exit of Anna Stanley from the pews went public in June 1993 when she filed for divorce. Her action caused a sensation in Southern Baptist circles, where divorce is considered a sin by some based on a literal reading of the Bible. Some pastors shunned Charles; others publicly demanded that he step down. The scandal dragged on for years as the couple attempted to reconcile.
In 1995, Anna Stanley explained why she wanted a divorce in a letter to her husband’s church that was excerpted in the local newspaper, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, in an article titled “Torn Asunder.”
She said she had experienced “many years of discouraging disappointments and marital conflict. … Charles, in effect, abandoned our marriage. He chose his priorities, and I have not been one of them.”
The impending divorce didn’t just threaten Charles’ family; it jeopardized his ministry.
He had always preached unquestioning obedience to the Word of God. And wasn’t Jesus clear about divorce in Gospel passages such as Luke 16:18: “Every one who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.”
New Testament passages such as those had prompted First Baptist to institute a policy that prevented divorced men from serving as pastors or deacons. What would the church do when its celebrity pastor – the man who packed the pews and beamed First Baptist’s name across the globe – got a divorce?
Charles treated the calls for him to step down like he treated the punch in the jaw so long ago – he didn’t flinch. He said he would gladly work on his marriage but he wouldn’t resign as pastor.
Gayle White, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution religion writer at the time, dug up a quote from the embattled pastor that explained his rationale and used it in her “Torn Asunder” article:
“You see, into my ministry I brought the survival spirit. You do or die. You do whatever is necessary to win. It doesn’t make any difference what it is.”
That survival spirit was second nature for Charles, whose father died when he was 9 months old and who grew up so poor that he learned about Santa Claus the Christmas morning he discovered in his stocking the orange that had been in the refrigerator the night before. He lived in 17 homes by his 8th birthday.
His mother, Rebecca, worked two jobs and was often away from home. But she’d leave her son notes, reminding him of chores, giving him advice or simply to say, “Charles, I love you.”
At night, she’d kneel beside her only child and pray, “God bless Charles here for whatever it may be.”
Just as his mother protected him, Charles shielded her. She married an abusive alcoholic who told his stepson he would never amount to anything and sometimes tried to attack Rebecca.
Charles would intervene.
“You come after my mom,” he’d say, “you come after me.”
So it was really no surprise that, decades later, Charles would refuse to back down. He told opponents calling for his resignation that he answered to a higher authority.
“God said you keep doing what I called you to until I tell you to do something else,” he says today. “I got that straight from the Lord. … I was simply obeying God.”
Besides, what could he do – make someone not divorce him?
“If somebody doesn’t love you and doesn’t want to live with you, you can’t – nowhere in the Scripture does it say that you’re to preach the gospel until someone does this or that,” he says.
Charles, though, wasn’t the only one in his family with a strong will. His son had other ideas about divorce.
The tension between Andy and his father had been building even before the divorce.
They were partners in ministry, but they were becoming rivals.
As Andy’s congregation started outdrawing his father’s, people told Charles that his son was becoming a prima donna who wanted to take over the entire church.
Those rumors seemed to be validated, Charles recalls, when his son’s church staff asked him to give them the satellite church’s property.
“They felt like they had their little nook,” Charles says now. “They didn’t have their little nook. Whose idea was it, No. 1, and who’s paying for it, No. 2.”
The distance between father and son was also philosophical. They had different ideas about church leadership.
Andy had discovered another preaching mentor, the Rev. Bill Hybels, an unassuming, genial pastor – the kind who travels alone without an entourage. He helped pioneer “seeker churches” while leading Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago.
People tend to focus on the cosmetic innovations of seeker churches: incorporating contemporary Christian music in worship, injecting clever skits and colorful stage props into services. But Andy was also drawn to Willow Creek’s primary mission: reaching “irreligious people” who had been turned off by traditional church.
After hearing Hybels, Andy says, church made sense “for the first time in my life.” Hybels became his hero.
“They were more committed to progress instead of maintaining traditions.”
Andy incorporated some of Hybels’ innovations into his father’s satellite church. He stopped wearing suits in the pulpit as his father had insisted. The church grew even more. But so did the tension with his father.
Was he competing with his father?
Almost 20 years later, Andy pauses before he answers:
“Not intentionally, but I felt like what we were doing was better.”
All the tensions converged one day when Andy’s father called him into the office to discuss the divorce.
“Dad, you never asked me what I think you should do,” Andy said.
His father smiled and asked him what he thought.
Walk into church the next Sunday morning and read a letter of resignation, Andy said. Tell them that you want to continue as their pastor, and will preach as long as they want.
“Daddy, your church is not going to leave you,” Andy said. “They need the opportunity to choose to have you as pastor if you divorce. If you do this, it all ends. Let them choose.”
Andy says his father didn’t hear anything after the word “resign.” All the rumors seemed to be true. His son had joined the church faction trying to get rid of him.
His son had betrayed him.
Andy says it was after that exchange that he started popping up in his father’s sermons, not as the heir apparent, but as the Old Testament villain, Absalom. Absalom was the charismatic but treacherous son of David who tried to snatch his father’s kingdom away from him through war.
“My dad at the time fashioned me as an Absalom who had rebelled against him,” Andy says. But Andy himself felt betrayed.
He wondered why his father didn’t denounce from the pulpit those people who questioned Andy’s loyalty. He told his father, I’m your most loyal staffer, but you can’t see it.
“I never felt I should replace my dad. I didn’t feel like I was at war with my dad.”
The conflict could not have come at a worse time for Andy. He had recently married; a baby was on its way. He had a steady job, health benefits, his congregation was booming. But his relationship with his father was crumbling. It was like being trapped in a soap opera.
“It consumes you,” says Sandra Stanley, Andy’s wife. “As soon as he got home, we were talking about it all the time. There was always something new happening, some new comment.”
Andy had to act, but how? His answer came in the form a slim book he happened to pick up one day, “A Tale of Three Kings” by Gene Edwards.
The book explored the story of a biblical soap opera, the relationship between David and King Saul, Israel’s first king. Saul descended into jealousy and paranoia because he was threatened by David. David eventually left King Saul’s kingdom and abandoned the spoils that came with it.
Andy’s eyes stopped on one line in the book:
“Beginning empty handed and alone frightens the best of men. It also speaks volumes of just how sure they are that God is with them.”
That line clinched it for Andy. He would walk away from his father empty-handed – no church, no salary, no health benefits.
He would turn his back on the unspoken dream.
Now he had to relay that message to his father.
That day remains vivid. He drove to his father’s office filled with anxiety. When he saw his father sitting behind his massive desk, he knew he wasn’t going to take it well.
“He was in his stern, commando mode,” Andy says.
His father reacted by staring at him in silence. Then he accused him of joining his enemies.
He finally rose slowly from his desk, walked over and embraced him.
Both men cried before regaining their composure.
“It was really bad. It was horrible. But you know what? I had perfect peace,” Andy says. “I’ve never been so sure of a decision even when the whole world blew up all around us.”
Andy says he could not have stayed at his father’s church, no matter how much money or fame he stood to gain.
“My dad taught me to be better than that,” he says. “Seeing him get punched when I was in the eighth grade – all that was clear to me. You trust God with all the consequences.”
News of Andy’s resignation spread.
Reggie Joiner was on First Baptist’s staff at the time. He would later help found North Point and now runs Orange, a nonprofit that teaches churches how to reach and keep young people. He remembers meeting with Charles after his son resigned.
“I sat in his office for two hours and he talked about Andy being his legacy,” Joiner recalls.
Later, he called another leader at First Baptist to tell him that Andy had resigned. The stunned church leader said he had never heard of a young pastor walking away from such a prominent ministry.
The man paused before finally telling Joiner:
“I think I could follow that guy anywhere.”
Communion over chips and salsa
Charles Stanley was alone. His marriage was ending. Pastors were publicly calling for him to step down. People within his church were trying to get rid of him.
His enemies were coming after him, and his son wasn’t stepping in front of his father to meet the blows.
That’s how Charles saw it. He says his son could have prevented some of that pain. He was the one person who could have stopped the congregation from calling for his resignation because he had earned so much respect.
“I forgave him. I couldn’t understand it. I would have never done that,” Charles says.
The church drama lasted seven years. The divorce became final in 2000, and First Baptist eventually voted to retain Charles as its pastor. He recently celebrated his 80th birthday at First Baptist, and was presented with a large photograph depicting Jesus counseling him as he prepared a sermon. Charles painstakingly posed for the photographer, with a professional model playing Jesus.
“Every Sunday I had to preach, no matter what,” Charles says of those days when he was going through the divorce. “I couldn’t get up and say I had a horrible day yesterday. It kept me in the Word of God – praying, trusting God, watching people saved and watching the church grow.”
Few would question Charles’ toughness, but during that time he revealed another side. He stopped treating Andy as his enemy.
He started treating him as his only son.
Charles fought for his relationship with his son as hard as he fought to stay in the pulpit. Maybe harder. He did it with chips and salsa. He kept inviting his son to lunch at Mexican restaurants.
And Andy kept accepting.
The meals were excruciating. Both men were still angry; they weren’t good at chitchat. But it was a way to keep talking. The meals became a ritual, like communion.
Charles then went public with his support for his son.
In 1995, Andy formed North Point Community Church with a group of friends. When Charles heard the news, he interrupted his regular order of service one Sunday morning to tell his congregation.
“And he has my blessing,” he said.
Charles did something else that some pastors shy from: He sought professional help. He asked his son to join him in seeing a counselor.
It was just another way in which Charles refused to fit the caricature of a simple “Bible thumper.” He had defied Southern Baptist theology by saying women should be able to preach. He installed 12 Step programs in his church and an orchestra. He was a techno-geek who loved computers and photography.
The counseling sessions between father and son were at times explosive.
Emotions spilled out in the open.
One night, Andy invited his father over to his house to see his wife and children. The night ended with both men yelling at each other “like middle-school girls” in the driveway, Andy recalls.
Still, they kept going.
“They weren’t too smart, too spiritual or too proud to allow somebody to come in and help them navigate all of that anger,” says Andy’s wife, Sandra. “Their relationship with one another was more important than their pride.”
A pivotal moment came one day when Charles called his son with a request: “Hey, can you preach for me this Sunday?”
Twelve years after he left the church as his father’s enemy, Andy returned as his son. His sermon title: “The Cost of Following Christ.”
Afterward, Charles invited his son into In Touch’s television studio to talk about the sermon. His face lit up with joy as he bragged about his son’s church. He told Andy on camera that he didn’t have a father growing up so he didn’t know how to be a father at times.
He leaned forward in his chair and looked at Andy with a huge smile before saying, “I’m absolutely delighted to have Andy with me again.”
Andy sat upright in his chair with his hands folded in his lap. His smile was tight and strained.
“It’s great to be back,” he said.
Asked today whether he would have ever cut off his son, Charles quickly shakes his head.
“It was the wise thing to do. I loved him and I knew he had great potential for God. I wouldn’t have cut off communication under any circumstances.”
The same was not true for Andy.
A sobering realization
Critics accuse Andy of being too accommodating. He won’t draw theological lines in the sand. His sermons are too self-help, too Christian-lite.
He is an introvert who struggles at times even to make conversation off-stage with members of his church. But he will still invite listeners who disagree with his sermons to contact him afterward. People who have written him scathing letters are sometimes shocked to hear his voice on the other end of their phone line. He was criticized recently for preaching a sermon that mentioned gay people but no explicit condemnation of homosexuality.
“I’m always trying to look for ways to affirm everything, maybe to a fault,” Andy says.
Yet there is a toughness about him that’s reminiscent of his father.
He has called members of his church to demand that they stop attending when people complained that they were harassing other members. He preaches that people who divorce and remarry are committing adultery even though many in the contemporary church reject that teaching.
He wouldn’t allow CNN to photograph him preaching at North Point – too distracting – or just hanging out with his staff on an ordinary day. (“It singles me out as being of greater significance.”)
That toughness hardened into self-righteousness as he tried to reconcile with his father.
He became judgmental. He was angry at his parents, and at people who questioned his integrity. Mr. Accommodation was becoming a Pharisee.
He realized that the battle wasn’t just with his father – it was with himself.
“I saw the dark side of myself, and I realized that I’m no better than anyone else.”
A turning point came during an individual counseling session. He told his counselor that he felt like he bent again and again, but his dad wasn’t changing.
“When can I give up on my relationship with my dad?” he asked his counselor.
The counselor’s reply:
“When your heavenly father gives up on his relationship with you.”
A Christmas gift from Dad
Andy and his father still seem to be following the counselor’s advice. They haven’t given up on one another.
When his father celebrated his 80th birthday at First Baptist, Andy was there to pay tribute. He called his father his hero, and paused to gather his emotions several times.
Charles took off his glasses and wiped tears from his eyes.
One person who was not there was Anna Stanley.
Andy says his mother is his biggest fan. She watches DVDs of his sermons throughout the day, and insists her caregivers join her.
He says his parents rarely talk anymore.
“There is no animosity,” he says. “She’ll ask about him: ‘How’s Charles?’ She watches him on television.”
He’s heard the rumors about his parents’ divorce – that his father was unfaithful. But he insists they are false – that his father did everything he could to save the marriage.
Andy is vague about his mother’s condition. He says she is under 24-hour care and he visits her often.
Only he and his sister, Becky, know the truth, he says. (Becky declined to talk after initially agreeing.)
“I love my mom. In her prime, she was an incredible woman,” Andy says. “Something just caught up with her, and my dad took all the grief for her.”
Charles doesn’t seem to spend a lot of time reflecting on that grief. He’s still preaching and traveling the world. One of his favorite pastimes is going to bookstores to sign copies of his book. (His latest, “The Ultimate Conversation: Talking With God Through Prayer” was just released.)
He says he won’t marry again as long as his ex-wife is alive because the Scriptures say that a divorced man who remarries commits adultery.
“I couldn’t be happier,” he says. “I don’t really need a wife. God has just filled my life with good things.”
Sitting in his cavernous office at In Touch Ministries, he pauses at times to dab tears from his eyes as he recalls his ordeal.
“Instead of destroying me, it flung the doors open for me,” he says of his divorce. “People used to say, ‘I couldn’t watch you. What do you know about hurt, pain, and loneliness? Now I can watch.’ I look back now and realized that God used that all for good.”
Would that good, though, include the end of the “unspoken dream” – the expectation that his son would follow him at First Baptist and In Touch?
That is the question that hangs over father and son now. Charles has built a global religious empire, and he has a gifted son who is renowned as a leader.
Wouldn’t it be better to pass it all to Andy one day?
Charles sighs before answering:
“I look back now and say God was in all of this. If we had stayed together, we could only be so large.”
Instead, two world-renown megachurches stand in Atlanta, each headed by a Stanley.
“He tells people he’s proud of me,” Andy says. “He ends our conversations that way: ‘Andy, I’m proud of you.’ ”
Still, his father reserves one critique for his son’s pulpit performance.
“He still wants me to wear a suit.”
The two now visit each other’s churches. One visit, captured on film, reveals how far their relationship has come.
North Point’s staff was planning an informal Christmas communion service last December when someone suggested that Andy call his father to see if he would lead the service.
Andy texted the request to his father and within five minutes, his father texted back: “I would be happy to!”
When his father arrived at North Point, Andy stepped onto the stage to introduce him. He wore a sober, dark suit coat over jeans.
“When people tell me that they enjoy my preaching, I always have the same answer: ‘You know what, I got it all from God and my dad, in that order,” he said.
Andy smiled and looked at his dad seated in the audience.
“I’m extraordinarily blessed, extraordinarily grateful, and I’m thrilled Dad that you are here to talk to us and lead us through communion.”
North Point’s staff clapped as Charles walked up to the stage. He wore a suit coat, but no tie.
Andy gently placed his hand on his father’s shoulder and helped him adjust a microphone.
“You got it?” he said.
His father nodded. “OK. Thank you.”
Charles sat down before his new congregation with a huge grin. Fat gift boxes wrapped with red and green ribbons were stacked behind him. Charles’ velvet baritone echoed through the hushed sanctuary.
Christmas is about memories, he said, and one of his best memories came when he was 5 years old. That was when he got his first electric train set, which he kept until he finished college.
“I couldn’t wait for Andy to grow up a little bit so I could buy him one,” Charles said.
That moment arrived on Andy’s fourth Christmas. As Charles assembled the train set, he explained to his son how the engine worked.
“We were putting the tracks together and Andy said, ‘Daddy, did Santa Claus bring you this train or did he bring it to me?’ “
The congregation erupted in laughter, and Charles laughed so hard that he momentarily choked over his next words.
“So, we’re both enjoying it immensely, believe me,” he finally added.
Charles finished his story, then asked the congregation to bow their heads and close their eyes as he led them in prayer. He quoted a passage from the Gospel account of Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples.
It’s a familiar passage for many Christians: Jesus opened his Last Supper with a warning that someone close would betray him, and ended it by extending his forgiveness.
Charles and Andy bowed their heads to pray, and then father and son broke bread together.